OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush ignored a flood of hair-raising red flags about the company’s Titan submersible in the years leading up to its doomed Titanic voyage last month.
During the ill-fated June 18 dive to the 1912 wreckage of the famed ship, the Titan imploded, killing Rush, who was piloting the vessel, along with the other four passengers: French Titanic expert Paul-Henri Nargeolet, 77; British billionaire Hamish Harding, 58; prominent Pakistani businessman Shahzada Dawood, 48; and his 19-year-old son, Suleman Dawood.
But countless times before the voyage, Rush brushed aside or downplayed concerns from passengers, staff and colleagues about the Titan’s safety and construction.
David Lochridge, OceanGate’s former director of marine operations, said that he found “a lack of non-destructive testing performed on the hull of the Titan,” and when he raised his concerns, he was fired in 2018, according to a lawsuit.
Following the Lochridge blow-up, the Marine Technology Society sent a letter on to OceanGate, warning that its experimental designs and refusal to follow industry-accepted safety protocols could lead to “catastrophic” results.
Will Kohnen, the chairman of the organization, told the New York Times that Rush called him afterward to complain that industry regulations were undermining his company’s work.
Several others were additionally wary of the fact that the Titan sub had “elements of MacGyver-y jerry-rigged-ness,” as CBS reporter David Pogue told Rush in a 2022 broadcast.
The seemingly on-the-fly construction that caught past passengers’ attention included the Playstation controller used to steer the sub — and the fact that its buoyancy was maintained via rusty construction pipes resting on shelves on its side.
The flimsy construction caused Chris Brown, 61, a multimillionaire thrill-seeker who signed up for the doomed voyage with his friend Harding, to pull out of the trip.
“Eventually I emailed them and said, ‘I’m no longer able to go on this thing,’” Brown told the Sun, fearing OceanGate was “cutting too many corners.”
Former passenger and German adventurer Arthur Loibl, who paid nearly $110,000 for a peek at the Titanic wreck in 2021, said that when the bracket of the stabilization tube responsible for balancing the submersible tore, it was “reattached with zip ties.”
“It was a suicide mission back then!” he said. “The first submarine didn’t work, then a dive at 1,600 meters had to be abandoned.”
While giving Rush consulting advice on marketing and logistics, deep-sea expert Rob McCallum voiced his concerns about Titan’s system running on Bluetooth, he told the New Yorker.
“Every sub in the world has hardwired controls for a reason — that if the signal drops out, you’re not f–ked,” he said.
McCallum jumped ship on working with Rush after the CEO refused to have the Titan marine-certified, despite him telling Rush how supportive classification agencies have been on his other projects.
“Stockton didn’t like that. He didn’t like to be told that he was on the fringe,” McCallum said.
When people began hearing about Rush’s plan to take passengers to the Titanic, they “would ring me, and say, ‘We’ve always wanted to go to Titanic. What do you think?’ And I would tell them, ‘Never get in an unclassed sub. I wouldn’t do it, and you shouldn’t, either,'” he told the New Yorker.
Karl Stanley, a former passenger, also encountered worrying signs about the sub’s shoddy construction on his 2019 dive off the coast of the Bahamas.
During the two-hour, 12,000-foot descent, Stanley heard a cracking sound that “sounded like a flaw/defect in one area being acted on by the tremendous pressures and being crushed/damaged,” he wrote in an email to Rush, which was obtained by the New York Times.
The cracking noise sound meant that there was “an area of the hull that is breaking down,” he said, warning Rush to cancel future expeditions and address the problem.
The Titan’s hull, meanwhile, had to be completely rebuilt after tests in 2020 showed that its original carbon fiber hull was showing signs of “cyclic fatigue,” decreasing its depth rating to 3,000 meters — far less than what was needed to reach the Titanic wreckage, Tech Crunch reported.
Prior to the sub’s implosion on June 18, OceanGate’s Titan also had experienced myriad technical difficulties.
During a previous dive, then-Titan pilot Scott Griffith lost control of the sub, causing it to spin around in circles, footage from a 2022 BBC documentary revealed.
Griffith warned the passengers that the sub’s thrusters were not responding properly, telling them: “We have a problem. … There’s something wrong with my thrusters. I’m thrusting and nothing is happening.”
YouTuber Jake Koehler, known as a Dallmyd, shared that his trip aboard the Titan, scheduled just days before the sub’s fatal dive, had been aborted partly due to bad weather and a ghost net that had surrounded the vessel and broke off some parts, he told People.
Rush, however, said in footage shared by Koehler that Titan’s motor controllers were “not consistently communicating,”
Another potentially damning decision on OceanGate’s part was that the company reportedly had hired students from Washington State University as interns to design some of its most important electronics.
“The whole electrical system – that was our design, we implemented it, and it works,” Mark Walsh, a former WSU student who worked on the Titan, told the university’s paper WSU Insider in 2018.
Rush himself made prescient comments about the tenuousness of the sub’s structure and safety during an interview with Mexican travel blogger Alan Estrada.
“I think it was Gen. [Douglas] MacArthur who said ‘You’re remembered for the rules you break’,” he said in the video interview.
“You know I’ve broken some rules to make this [the Titan]. I think I’ve broken them with logic and good engineering behind me.”